Monday, December 27, 2010

Brad Hawpe

Brad Hawpe signing with the Padres took me back to Sept. 21, 2007, Petco Park and one of the most impressive, and significant, home runs in the ballpark's seven seasons. Hawpe's home run off Padres reliever Joe Thatcher in the 14th inning broke a 1-1 tie and the Rockies went on to win, 2-1. At the time, it didn't seem like a big deal since the odds still heavily favored the Padres getting to the playoffs. Later, Hawpe's home run and that 2-1 victory turned out to be a very big deal.

That was one impressive home run. I can still see Hawpe's moonshot sailing toward the bullpens beyond left-center. It was close to midnight when Hawpe met Thatcher's 0-0 pitch. Usually, Petco plays the size of Nebraska. Late at night, it's more like Alaska.

You know, don't you, that Hawpe's blast was the only home run Thatcher gave up all year? One of the reasons the Padres' front office had acquired Thatcher, who was in Triple-A with the Brewers that summer, was because he was so home run-averse. He hadn't give up a home run for any of the three minor league teams that employed him in 2007, a total of 46.2 innings. The only home run allowed by lefty Joe Thatcher in 67.2 professional innings that year was lefty Brad Hawpe's opposite-field shot. Off a cut fastball.

So, when you're feeling masochistic one day and decide to relive the Padres' failed playoff race of 2007, don't forget to include Hawpe's home run. It was every bit as striking as the Diamondbacks' ambush of Jake Peavy earlier that September, and Tony Gwynn Jr.'s triple off Trevor Hoffman in Game 161, and the Brewers' rally against Brett Tomko in Game 162, and the Rockies' rat-a-tat-tat off Hoffman's fastballs in Game 163.

Check that. Hawpe's home run was more impressive than all of those offensive feats. Peavy tended to be vulnerable in arid, hitter friendly Arizona and was working on short rest that night. True, Gwynn had a tremendous at-bat against Hoffman, but home runs count more than triples, right? In Game 163, Hoffman had nothing on his fastball and couldn't locate his changeup. Hawpe's blow trumps them all for degree of difficulty. What's more, the Rockies were desperate for someone to end the tyranny of a mighty Padres bullpen. The Brewers, conversely, had been eliminated when they won Games 161 and 162 in Milwaukee. They were relaxed.

Even looking back now, I'm still in awe of what the Rockies did to reach the 2007 playoffs. They had virtually no margin for error in their quest to overtake the Padres and three other clubs in the wild-card race. Instead of falling 5.5 games behind the Padres with nine games to go, the Rockies rose to 3.5 games back when they won on Sept. 21. They went on to win the next two games of the series by scores of 6-2 and 7-3, and thus left San Diego 1.5 games out with seven to go. You know the rest.

Now then.

What are the Padres getting in 31-year-old Brad Hawpe? They're getting a hitter whose swing is high maintenance (a diva swing). They're getting a patient hitter who can hit home runs in any ballpark. Defensively, they're getting a veteran right-fielder who should be good at first base. They're also getting an NL West veteran whose intangibles bring him much praise from a long-time employer.

* The swing. Hawpe's swing is very involved. Tony Gwynn Sr. had a simple swing. Paul Molitor had a simple swing. Placido Polanco has a simple swing. Brad Hawpe has an involved swing. That's not to say it's a bad swing. This is a career. 279 hitter with a career .377 on-base percentage. The point is, the 6-foot-3 left-hander probably needs to be in the lineup pretty often if he's going to be of much use. A season ago with the Rockies, Hawpe's swing got out of wack, and Hawpe lost out on playing time to Seth Smith. The Rockies had decided Hawpe wasn't part of their plan for 2011, so they offered to release him in late August to allow him to catch on with another club. That was a show of respect. Hawpe had batted .255 with seven home runs for the Rockies in 88 games (300 plate appearances). He would go 7-for-39 (.179) with two home runs for the Rays.

* Hawpe's personality added to his appeal with the Rockies, who described him as a winner and a team guy. Drafted by Colorado in 2000, Hawpe was part of two wild-card winners and one NL champion.

* Hawpe was a first baseman until he got to within a year of the big leagues, so don't fret that he has played only 72 innings there in the majors. The Rockies moved him to right field because he was blocked by Todd Helton. At first base, Hawpe is very comfortable. He shows good footwork and an excellent arm. He's the rare left-handed thrower with no tail on his throws. He is replacing a two-time Gold Glover in Adrian Gonzalez, but I doubt there will be much of a dropoff defensively from last season. Remember, Gonzalez was hindered by an ailing right shoulder that would require surgery after the season.

I think it makes sense for the Padres to make small and nuanced bets such as this one when bringing a lefty hitter into their lineup. Petco is a tough place for righties, too, but lefty sluggers say it's even more difficult for them. Ryan Klesko hated the place. So did Brian Giles. Although Gonzalez was the rare lefty slugger who could cope with Petco by swatting outside pitches into the left-field seats, he also was frustrated by how big the park played, and, as I've written too many times, even lobbied Sandy Alderson to move in the right-center wall.

I don't have complete numbers on how Petco has played for lefties. I do have a three-year park factor analysis for 2007-09, and it's pretty stark. Over those seasons, lefty home runs were nearly 40% less frequent in Petco than other ballparks; righty homers, meanwhile, were 14% lower in Petco. The slugging percentages of lefties were 19% lower in Petco, compared with 16% lower for righties.

Hawpe isn't going to panic when Petco says boo. He is familiar with the place and the tactics it inspires. He has Petco power. And his Petco numbers are encouraging -- a .281 batting average with a .371 OBP and .451 slugging percentage in 42 games. Spring training results are largely irrelevant, but next spring training will be a big one for Brad Hawpe. Can he regain his swing and take it into the season?


  1. Great read Tom,

    I'm really enjoying your blog (especially as someone who follows the Padres from overseas) and this has helped increase the anticipation for the 2011 season.



  2. Didn't he break up one of CY's no-hit bids too? He better be the Hawpe of old or I'm going to have another reason to hate the guy.